Academic journal article Educational Foundations

"Every Day I Spin These Plates": A Case Study of Teachers Amidst the Charter Phenomenon

Academic journal article Educational Foundations

"Every Day I Spin These Plates": A Case Study of Teachers Amidst the Charter Phenomenon

Article excerpt


Over the past decade, numerous shifts in education policy have been proposed and implemented in the attempt to improve educational opportunities for the diverse American population. Some of these changes have been initiated by the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) via its mix of standards, accountability, and punitive measures. Other changes have occurred at the state and local levels, by restructuring schools and administrative staff. These restructuring initiatives have included movements towards schools that are: small, themed, semi-privatized, and chartered. Both federal and local policy changes have led to intended and unintended consequences for educational stakeholders.

Of these state and local restructuring efforts, charter schools have arguably had the widest recent impact with rapidly increasing enrollments in several areas of the country. Charter schools, as opposed to vouchers, have had bipartisan supporters (and detractors) across racial and ideological lines, and are often particularly attractive to parents in urban areas who have become dissatisfied with the traditional public school system (Sarason, 1998). For example, Witte, Shober, and Manna (2003) explain how Republicans might support charters because of their free-market roots and perceived capacity to "dent" the public education monopoly, while Democrats may support charters because they often funnel opportunities to the inner-city and can be seen as a means to forestall vouchers. Further blurring the issue of charter schools is that--because charters are intended to "fill gaps" not served by the existing educational system--they may run under a variety of educational philosophies depending on local politics and perceptions of need.

In addition to appealing to many parents and school reformers, charter schools--which in many states have been afforded increased local control and flexibility--have also been attractive to many educators looking to "teach outside the box" (Finn et al., 2000, p. 89). Entrepreneurial opportunities afforded to school founders are in many cases also held out to teachers who may be lured by the prospect to be more involved with school policymaking and planning (Finn et al, 2000, p. 232). Yet some also argue (see Miron & Nelson, 2002) that teaching within charter schools has a "darker side," leading to ultimate dissatisfaction with working conditions and professional opportunities as well as high levels of teacher attrition. Thus, while it is increasingly apparent that retaining and supporting teachers is essential to any successful school reform effort (see LaGuardia, 2002; CSTP Report, 2005), it is still unclear whether charter schools are a positive place for teachers to participate in and shape education reform.

Rationale for Study

Much of the research on charter schools has been tainted by what Ascher (2003) calls biased "partisan scholarship," pre-disposed to either argue for or against charter schools. Further, most attempts to understand charters have offered a comprehensive overview of the state of American charters (see Finn et al, 2000; Miron & Nelson, 2002) relying primarily on statistical data, sprinkled with excerpts of interviews from short visits to many schools.

This study, in contrast, seeks to provide a detailed, insider account of a charter school. Further, by focusing on charter teachers, the research seeks to understand how charter policy is actually lived by those who work closest with charter school students. However, because "charter school laws vary considerably from state-to-state" (Witte, Shober, & Manna, 2003, p. 2)--and within states run under a wide range of educational philosophies--it is impossible to speak of "charter policy" as a single entity to be experienced by teachers. Therefore, this study took a phenomenological stance (see Dilthy, in Makkreel & Rodi, 1985; Husserl, in Kockelmans, 1994), focusing first on the original and concrete experiences of teachers in a single charter school, and then later examining these experiences in light of how the school's charter status impacted teacher meaning-making. …

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